A Troll Too Far

Once again, the Runaway Five are in debt. They owe the Topolla Theater in Fourside a million dollars. I still don’t really get how performers get so mired in debt. I guess they just don’t read their contracts?

The manager suggests that you’d have to find buried gold to settle that kind of debt.

Say, didn’t we just meet some miners in the desert? Does that mean… we have to go back there?

I think this is the most noticeable mistake in pacing in all of Earthbound. After arriving in the fabled city of Fourside, a location entirely different from another town up until now… the only way to progress is to LEAVE this magical new place and go back to Dusty Dunes Desert, which you just finished scouring.

Unlike the Pencil Eraser troll from earlier, this double-back can result in quite the lengthy and possibly arduous detour, and it’s repetitive. It feels like only so long ago that we just took a bus and busted the Runaway Five out of a bogus contract.

However, like the Pencil Eraser troll, this whole scenario is basically the set up for a joke – one of my favorite long-form gags in the whole game.

When you head back to the desert, you’ll find that the miners’ dig has really come far, but they have to stop digging because they unearthed a maze filled with hostile critters, including five monstrous moles.

The first mole you find in the labyrinth introduces himself as one of the five master moles of this hole, and declares that he is the third strongest. It seems like coincidence that you happen to find the most average of all of the moles. When you challenge the next master mole, it says,

I’m really the third strongest master. I’ll destroy you now!

Uhh. I and then the next one says,

My strength falls between the second and fourth strongest masters. Do you
wanna test me?

And,

I’m truly the third strongest master of this hole. I’ll demonstrate the power of being third to you!

And then,

Ha. You’ve fought the strongest master of this hole, the second strongest master of this hole, the fourth strongest master of this hole, and the weakest master of this hole! I’m truly the third strongest master of this hole. Now you see the true advantage of being third!

I love how all of these terrifying moles – they are pretty scary, their big sprite charge at you when you get close – revel in their average-ness. And yet, as average as they are, they’re all too dumb or lazy to realize who really is the most third of them.

The dungeon itself is rather devious. As long as one of the master moles still stands, baddies will keep swarming throughout the hole. Not only to you have to defeat them all, you have to find them in the genuinely confusing underground labyrinth, doing your best not to cover old ground. It’s a very old-school, dungeon-crawly sort of dungeon, a battle of attrition as you slowly burn through all of your PP and restorative items.

My friend Mike watched me play through this dungeon, having heard of Earthbound but never having seen it in action.

“Looks pretty boring,” he said.

It was a harsh thing. The whole point of this blog is to point out why Earthbound is technically a rather good game. And yet, I couldn’t immediately disagree with Mike’s assessment.

The truth is, this is the part of the game where you might start asking yourself, “Am I playing a boring game?” Now, part of it is because you’ve had the same resources available to you for awhile: the same three characters, the same combat items for Jeff, roughly the same PSI skills. Go-to strategies have solidified by now, and one battle tends to go the same way as another. The tenacity that Ness needed to win his fights when he was alone is not quite so necessary.

A big part of it, though, is that as clever and funny as this dungeon is, it suffers a surprisingly dull and annoying assembly of enemies. Not only are they largely color swaps of old enemies, most of them appear by themselves or with weaker enemies, obviating the need for strategies more complex than basic attacks and PSI Freeze. The real difficulty comes in the sheer amount of times you’ll be poisoned by these enemies, forcing you to hold back on Ness’ PP.

Read that last sentence again without giggles.

So, yeah. It’s a real shame that such a clever dungeon design and such a great joke has to be bogged down by a sudden lack of variety and repetitiveness.

Once you’re down, though, you’ll be rewarded with a giant diamond for your efforts, with which you can pay off the Runaway Five’s debts and finally explore the rest of Fourside.

And then: shit gets real.

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